Hiking The Reef Bay Trail

About two-thirds of the island of St. John is national parkland. As is the case with most national park properties, that means you’ll find ample hiking trails that allow you to get some exercise and feed your adventurous spirit at the same time.

Earlier this week we decided to tackle the Reef Bay trail, which begins at mile marker 5 on the Centerline Road, up in the hills that form the twisted spine of the island, and then heads through dense forest down to the beach far below. The hike has a deceptively bucolic beginning, with a tiny parking area that is filled with beautiful butterflies, but immediately takes you down a rugged path into the jungle. As you descend, following a winding path with a steep downward grade, you’ll see lots of trees and insects and tropical plants, along with national park information signs — many of which have been rendered largely illegible by the ravages of tropical heat, humidity and rain.

More than halfway down, there’s a spur to the trail that takes you to a double waterfall and some petroglyphs left by the indigenous people who lived here in the pre-Columbian, pre-colonial era, when the pools of fresh water were an important resource. You can reach the upper waterfall, shown in the first picture in this post, by following a crude trail that heads straight uphill and requires you to limbo under several fallen trees. Don’t flirt with the pooled water, though — it looks to be filled with leeches.

Many of the petroglyphs have been worn away by the tropical climate, but some are still distinct. The experts believe they were created by the Carib or Arawak people. What’s pictured here? I’m not sure, but some might see an ancient astronaut and his spacecraft. I was just grateful to find some remaining legacy of the people who lived happily in this part of the world before European invaders brought greed, slavery, and disease that decimated their civilization.

And speaking of colonialism, the trail then winds past the remains of a colonial sugar plantation, with its long-abandoned stone buildings now inhabited solely by hundreds of hermit crabs and a colossal insect nest, and then on down to Reef Bay, a pretty little beach on the south side of the island that looks out over the turquoise Caribbean Sea beyond. We rested here for a bit, drank our water, and enjoyed the scenery — which for one member of our party included a sighting of a shark swimming lazily through the shallow water near the beach. In the back of our minds we all knew, however, that while gravity was our friend on the way down the trail, the forces of nature would not be so kind on the uphill trudge.

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Grand Canyon Time Lapse

I’ve been thinking about America on this Memorial Day, and when I think about America I often think about our national parks — because they are a big part of what makes America such a special, beautiful place.  I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many national parks, and I aspire to visit many more, but in my view it’s hard to top the Grand Canyon for sheer spectacular views.  It’s just an incredible, gorgeous feast for the senses.

I found this nifty YouTube time lapse video of a rain storm approaching the Grand Canyon.  It reminded me of what it was like to stand on the rim, hearing the wind whistle past the rock formations below and feeling almost swallowed up by the extraordinary vastness.

At Carlsbad Caverns

Yesterday we visited the Carlsbad Caverns National Park.  It’s located in a remote area near the southern border of New Mexico, so it takes an effort to get there.  We made a five-hour drive from Santa Fe to reach it — but it was definitely worth it.


We took the natural entrance to the cave, which requires you to walk down a steep series of switchbacks and drop hundreds of feet into the mouth of the cave.  (It’s easily doable, but if you’re queasy about heights, be sure to stick to the inside of the switchbacks.)  Once you leave the last rays of natural light, in the area shown above, you find yourself in a dimly lit fantasy land of astonishing rock formations ranging from the delicate, like the Doll’s Theater shown at the top of this post, to massive stalactites and stalagmites. 


And when you reach the Big Room, a colossal underground opening where the fabulous creations of nature are found around every corner, be prepared to spend some time just shaking your head in wonderment at it all.  Words can’t begin to describe it, and photos taken with a cell phone can’t really begin to capture the scale and intricacy and vastness of it all.  I’ve posted some photos merely to give an idea of what you’ll see on a visit, but understand that they convey only a tiny fraction of what it is like to be there.


And, after a time, a certain hush seems to fall over it all.  Even rambunctious kids begin to talk in whispers as they walking along the path, and there’s not much need for shushing rangers, either.  Standing in the cool dimness — the Caverns maintain a constant temperature in the 50s– with the vaulted ceiling far above, and towering statuary-like figures everywhere you look, the experience is like being in a gothic cathedral . . . and who is loud in a church?


The Carlsbad Caverns are a world heritage site, drawing visitors from across the globe, and it’s not hard to see why.  It’s got to be one of the most spectacular bits of natural beauty you can find anywhere, as jaw-dropping in its way as the Grand Canyon or Mount Everest or the Great Barrier Reef.  

100 Years Of The National Park Service

IMG_1961On Thursday, the National Park Service celebrated its 100th anniversary.

That’s a bit deceiving, because America’s first national park, Yellowstone, was actually created by a statute signed by President Ulysses S. Grant 144 years ago.  Initially, Yellowstone, and then other parks that were created, were under the control of the Secretary of the Interior.  The NPS was created in 1916 to provide for unified management.

Now, there are more than 400 national parks, and the NPS employs more than 20,000 people — but an additional 220,000 people volunteer in national parks.  That’s impressive, but not particularly surprising, because national parks are beautiful places.  And that employment number doesn’t count people who are employed by private companies that offer rafting trips, red bus tours, and other services related in some way to a national park.  In 2015, more than 307 million people visited one of our national parks.

America has has some good ideas in its history, but the concept of national parks — striking and special areas that are to be preserved and maintained for the American people — is one of the best of those ideas.  Anyone who visits a national park can’t help but feel a certain pride in our country, which not only has such beautiful areas but also has carefully cared for them.  And with people hiking, biking, rafting, camping, and otherwise enjoying the magnificent scenery and clean air, national parks tend to be enclaves of enthusiastic, active folks who care about their country and its environment.

I’ve had the good fortune to go to many national parks — including Yellowstone, Grand Teton, the Grand Canyon, and this year, Glacier National Park — but I’ve not visited Yosemite and many others . . . yet.  Hitting many more of our national parks is a bucket list item for me.  And whenever I got to a national park, I’m grateful for the NPS people who keep them patrolled and well maintained, because those parks are a true national treasure.

Happy birthday, National Park Service!IMG_1827